Criminologist Elliott Currie says that mass imprisonment is the most thoroughly implemented social experiment in US history and I tend to agree. Articles such as Marie Gottschalk’s on the cover of this month’s issue of PLN explores what changed and what happened so that the US became the world’s prison nation. We will bring readers similar stories in up-coming issues. If you like Marie’s article you should definitely read her book, The Prison and the Gallows, which gives a much fuller and very well footnoted, exploration of the topic. The book is available from PLN.
Also in this issue of PLN is an interview with John Boston, the head of the Prisoner Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society in New York City. This is an ongoing series of interviews by Seattle free lance journalist Todd Matthews with the many people who have dedicated their professional careers representing prisoners and advocating on their behalf.
Within the past month I attended two important conferences as a speaker. The first was the Stop Max conference in Philadelphia which is the founding conference designed to stop the proliferation of super max prisons and close down the existing ones. It was a great conference convened by Naima Black of the American Friends Service Committee and it brought together hundreds of activists, lawyers, former prisoners and friends and family members of prisoners to organize a campaign to end control units. I spoke on a panel with Angus Love of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and David Fathi of Human Rights Watch on the history of super max litigation in the US.
The second conference I spoke at was at the legal convention of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Aspen, Colorado. My presentation was on the rights of prisoners. This is only some of the presentations on prison topics that PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann and I do throughout the year. One thing I think it is safe to say that all prisoner rights advocates have in common is that we are opposed to the war on poor drug users and see sentencing reform for all crimes, especially drug offenses, as being an important priority. At the NORML conference the founder and director, Keith Stroup, received an award and one of the attendees recalled Keith’s optimism that marijuana would be le-gal in the US by 1978.
Which sadly illustrates some of the points made by Marie’s article on the cover of this month’s PLN and the poverty of electoral politics in the US. When I give presentations on crime and punishment in the US I frequently ask audience mem-bers if they personally know anyone who believes marijuana should be a criminal offense. Even in fairly large settings with one or two hundred people it is unusual for more than one or two people to raise their hands and say they do. Yet there is not a single politician elected to statewide elected office anywhere in the US today who publicly supports the decriminali-zation of marijuana and with the exception of Jon Corzine, the governor of New Jersey, I am not aware of any politician elected to statewide office who opposes the death penalty.
The net result is that marijuana remains illegal, hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for marijuana offenses each year despite the fact that very few Americans even believe it should be illegal. On criminal justice issues there is a serious and true disconnect between the American electorate and its rulers. The paucity of criminal justice reform even from the candidate of change and hope like Senator Obama and Senator “straight talk” McCain are worth noting in this election year.
Exploring this disconnect is an important topic since the corporate media certainly won’t.
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